A Handful of Expression


New technologies allow the artform of calligraphy to be transformed and continued

Taylor Johnston / Digital Production Editor

Jessica Hazeltine sits with her iPad in her lap and Apple Pencil in her hand and begins to turn a quote she found online into her hand lettering with intricate digital strokes, allowing the pressure of the pen on the screen to create digital hand lettering.

Some traditional calligraphers think digital calligraphy, such as using an iPad and Apple Pencil rather than pen and paper, is unfair because it can offer techniques that those who started off traditionally had to work to achieve.

Deborah Basel, a calligrapher based in Maryland, is more of a traditional calligrapher than a digital one. However, she does not think it is unfair to have the digital advantage of writing in calligraphy.

“There's nothing unfair about that, it's a matter of discernment,” she said. “If someone wants to compete with me with a brush marker and they have a client that loves that look, I don't see anything unfair about it.”

Basel said it’s up to what the client wants. If people want quality, they will seek quality.

“As a calligrapher, I'm going to be a little more critical of someone's skill level than someone off the street who just looks at that or somebody's writing and says 'That's beautiful!,’” she said.

Calligraphy is derived from the Greek word kallos, or “beauty.” The artform dates back to ancient times and has continued to evolve.

Within the last few years, with the help of social media, hand lettering has become a trendy new form of calligraphy. It uses the principles of thick downstrokes and light upstrokes written with a pen, rather than using a metal nib with ink.


Taylor Johnston | ILLUSTRATION

Whether it be traditional calligraphy, hand lettering or pure letterforms, those who are passionate have worked to keep it alive.

Hazeltine agrees the new digital approach is easier for the average person, but still has her own opinions when it comes to the traditional method versus the digital method.

“I mean, I’m a purist,” she said. “Like I said, I like my pen and I like my paper.”

She said when she first started out, she was a little judgmental of those who used their iPads to letter.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I don't like that letterer because they always use their iPad, like they're not a real letterer,’” Hazeltine said. “So, it just depends. Like if I was paying for something, I would want it to be original on pen, on ink.”

The methods:

• Uses a dip pen with a nib and ink
• Creates thick and thin lines using degrees of pressure in one single stroke
• Downstrokes are thick and upstrokes are thin

Hand lettering:
• Uses a pen of some kind, such as brush pen or Sharpie, rather than a nib and ink
• Often referred to as “faux calligraphy”
• Also uses the principles of thick and thin strokes

Encouraging a novice

Hazeltine uses a quote from Harry Potter to help her encourage rising letterers and calligraphers.

“(Harry Potter) says at one point, ‘Every great wizard started out just like we are now’,” she said. “So, I always tell my beginners in my class, I’m like ‘everybody started just what you are now. They started as a beginner.”

hazeltine workbook


A page from Jessica Hazeltine's workbook that she uses to teach beginners in her calligraphy class.

She said you can’t look at other people’s work on social media and compare it to your own because everyone started at the beginning.

Basel also urges those new at calligraphy to practice.

“I think some people get frustrated when t don't think they're progressing and if you keep your practice sheets and you date them, you can go back and see how much you have improved,” she said.

When Basel was teaching classes at Bertram’s Inkwell, she had a mix of people from the Maryland Institute of Art and regular pen store customers.

“The pen store customers would sometimes get frustrated because the art students would get the concept and knock it out and they would just sit down and immediately their letters would look beautiful,” Basel said. “The other people would be really frustrated but then they would go home and they would practice and practice and then the next week they would come back and their work would be beautiful.”

Basel said the people who practiced and were persistent and diligent in their practice, were the ones who really progressed in the long run.

“I use that as an illustration when people get frustrated in my class because yes the art students had an innate ability to mimic but who really retained the knowledge?,” she said. “Who really stuck it out and practiced and were diligent about it? Those people retained it. Anyone can learn it. It's just a matter of practicing to become proficient.”

Here is a glimpse into the lives and stories of people who contribute to keeping the art of calligraphy alive:

As a business and a lifestyle

hazeltine project


Jessica Hazeltine holds a current project for her friend's bridal store.

Sitting with her legs criss-crossed on the floor of her studio, Jessica Hazeltine works on a current project for a friend. Hazeltine recalled how she first started out with calligraphy and how she turned it into a lifestyle.

Hazeltine, owner of J. Scribbs Custom Hand Lettering and Calligraphy in Medina, Ohio, opened her studio in May, and she “never expected it to blow up like it did.”

“My full-time job used to be next door at the (hair) salon, I’m a managing nail tech and aesthetician,” she said. “Now, I only work there three days a week. The rest of the time I’m able to be here at my studio. It was life-changing, just that step to decide to do it.”

Hazeltine started practicing calligraphy a couple of years ago and then a friend asked her to go to a class that was being hosted at her shop.

Her customers have also kept her busy with different lettering tasks.

“Right now the trends are .... agate place cards, hexagon tiles -- I don’t get too many crazy ones,” she said. “Most of the time it’s either wood, canvas, windows and I do pretty well with my coffee mugs.”

Hazeltine, like many others, has found her lettering inspiration through various social media platforms such as Instagram by searching different hashtags, such as #letterarchive_, which allows users to search for a specific letter for inspiration.

A post shared by Kristen (@letteritwrite) on

Within the dorms

Emma Zgonc, has her work posted around her dorm room in Johnson Hall and has even sold to those in her dorm and friends.

Zgonc, a freshman studying sociology, first started calligraphy about two years ago when she copied other people’s lettering that she liked on their Instagram accounts.

“I just really like it so I started making them and then friends and family suggested that I start selling it, so that just kind of led into me making my own business,” she said.

She has mainly created wooden signs but also likes to paint on suitcases or antique windows.

“I’ll go to craft stores and some antique malls,” Zgonc said. “I kind of like just see if I can find some old wood. My great grandfather, he has a shop and has wood I use.”

To create her signs, Zgonc uses paintbrushes with acrylic paint because traditional methods usually don’t work on the types of mediums she prefers. She usually sells her signs for between $12 and $15, depending on the size.

“Whenever I do calligraphy and I sell it, I always donate some of my proceeds to diabetes because I have Type One,” Zgonc said.

Coming together

Terry Mawhorter’s wife, Sonya, was traveling with a friend to various flea markets looking for interesting items when she saw a pencil pouch that a student would have used.

She brought it home and Mawhorter dumped it out on their kitchen table.

“There at the very bottom was a vintage Parker pen in a beautiful blue color,” Mawhorter said. “I really didn't know anything about pens other than it was a pretty color and I thought, well we were going out to flea markets and selling things so I'll take that with me.”

2017 ohio pen show

Provided via Terry Mawhorter

Pen collectors from Virginia displaying their calligraphy items at the 2017 Ohio Pen Show.

Someone came up to him asking how much he was selling the pen for, so he asked for $10 and they bought it. After that, he saw a continued interest in the pens.

In 1988, Mawhorter went to his first pen show in New Jersey and then another the following year in Philadelphia. A few years later, as he was living in Columbus, he realized there was a lot of interest in central Ohio and set out to find a location to host a show.

Mawhorter has now been organizing the Ohio Pen Show for the past 23 years. Now the show has 160 exhibitors.

For those who attend the show, it’s a cross section between modern fountain pens and vintage fountain pens, Mawhorter said.

“Some of the collectors are just wanting to collect the pens because they like the way they look. They don't necessarily want to use them,” he said. “But, there is also a great deal of people who are attending the show because they are interested in improving their handwriting by using a fountain pen.”

There’s been a growing interest at pen shows from those of a younger age and it’s due to them being interested in calligraphy, Mawhorter said.

“They are not interested in buying a $2,000 fountain pen, they might buy something under $100 or even $50. But they're into the calligraphy and the hand writing,” he said. “We are happy to see that because you know that's kind of what it is all about. That's what the purpose of the pen is.”

The pen show also has workshops for those who are interested in brushing up their calligraphy skills or have never touched a fountain pen before and want to improve their handwriting.

A different approach

While Don Adleta is more interested in graphic design than calligraphy, letterforms are still a part of his everyday life.

Now a professor emeritus of graphic design in the School of Art and Design at OU, Adleta trained as a graphic designer in Basel, Switzerland.

Provided via Don Adleta

Don Adleta, a professor emeritus of graphic design at OU, uses paint to create various marks in order to later analyze.

He studied the idea of typography and how lettering exercises allow a person to read.

“Now, I have some dyslexia and often when I would read books, I would get so tired and my eyes would be so exhausted and fall asleep,” he said.

In his study, Adleta found a lot of the typography in books are set too tight and the eyes are not reading the entire word, but reading the counterforms instead which causes eye exhaustion.

“We don't know it, we are just so conditioned to it,” he said. “But, once I started reading texts that were set comfortably a part, it was like ‘this is a major revelation.’ ”

While Adleta said OU does not offer any classes that focus on calligraphy, he has a different approach when it comes to teaching letterforms.

“I ask the students to make marks and these marks then are analyzed and then we identify some that are more interesting than others and then we create a page of it,” Adleta said.

After these marks are made, students can begin to realize an aesthetic within the marks and create a design, he said.

Development by: Taylor Johnston / Digital Production Editor

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